The Martian Chronicles
Issue 9, Spring 2001

Mission 2004: The Search for Life On Mars
by Cassie Rodriquez

Mission 2004 - The Search for Life On Mars  

Is there life on Mars? How would you begin to answer this question?

In the Fall of 2000, Mission 2004: The Search for Life On Mars was a new class offered to freshman as part of an Institute-wide initiative to expand the horizons of MIT undergraduate education. While most first year subjects deal with the typical “problem set” and lecture type atmosphere, Mission 2004, taught by Professor Kip Hodges, provided a unique opportunity to experience cross-disciplinary problem solving in a collaborative learning environment. The students were assigned the following task: Develop a viable mission plan for the exploration of Mars with the aim of finding evidence for the present or past existence of life.

In teams, the students tackled various technical, scientific, and political issues that would affect a Mars mission. Several questions were extensively discussed and debated. For example, how do we define life? We decided on five criteria for life, based on the energy properties of living systems rather the than chemical properties.

  The landing site: Diacria Crater  
The landing site: Diacria Crater

The following five basic charactertics were used as the definition of life for this mission design: (1) shows evidence of growth and replication; (2) shows evidence of purposeful energy transfer; (3) responds to stimuli; (4) acts in such a way as to ensure self-preservation; and (5) is significantly different from the surrounding environment.

After the definition of life was established and it was decided that the mission should be manned, the details of the mission architecture began to fall into place. But still numerous questions remained - how will the public react and how much would they be willing to pay for a mission in search of life on Mars? The Mission 2004 team looked into public relations through advertising and public funding. A mission budget based on the percentage that NASA gave to the Apollo program in the 1960’s and other Mars missions was estimated to be $140 billion over 20 years.

How do we get to Mars? The extensive mission payload required advanced propulsion systems to be adopted, separating experimental equipment and the human crew. Surface transportation (rovers) were developed to handle the experimental packages. Incorporated into all structures were life support methods and communication systems. Life detecting methods included geological surveys, spectroscopic analysis, organic analysis, and biological experiments. A timeline for the mission, which included a breakdown of research, manufacturing, launch windows, travel/stay time, was developed. This comprehensive plan embodies the semester of work entitled Mission 2004: The Search for Life on Mars. The plan was presented formally to the MIT community and two leading NASA scientists - Dr. Jack Farmer and Dr. Jim Garvin. The Mission 2004 presentation and multi-media website, containing further information, can be viewed at:

  The Mars Rover with trailers  
The Mars Rover with trailers